The Women’s March on Washington: Interview with Mme. Valérie Leloup

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Thought to be the largest single-day protest in American history, the Women’s March on Washington took place on January 21st, 2017, the day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration. It was attended by an estimated half-million protesters, and among them was Lisgar’s very own Mme. Valérie Leloup. Lisgarwrite co-editor Olive Nugent sat down with her shortly afterwards to discuss the experience. The following is a redacted transcript of their exchange.

ON: Thanks so much for joining me. So, to start us off, I was hoping you could give me a short account of your trip to Washington.

VL: Well, it was quite a journey, to be honest. We left on Friday night by bus, a coach bus that was completely full. There were about 50 women – some men, too,actually,about 3 or 4 of them, but mostly women. There was a bit of stress when we reached the border because we had heard over social media that some people had been turned away at the border, so we made the decision in Kingston to leave all our signs and pink hats behind so that it wouldn’t be too obvious that we were demonstrating. (laughing) Although it was a little bit ridiculous, in hindsight, because it was very obvious where we were headed, and we couldn’t lie about it anyway. I think, in the moment, you just make weird decisions sometimes… But anyway, we passed the border without any problems. It was a pretty long night, as you can imagine, because it was about a twelve hour trip altogether, in an overcrowded bus.

When we arrived, I was immediately struck by […] the sheer volume of this march. We were kind of in the outskirts of Washington and it was already full of people marching towards the downtown, where the main demonstration was happening. There were people everywhere, on every side street, and when we arrived at the Capitol Building and the Mall, we were sort of expecting we would start marching in some direction. But a march can only happen when there’s room to march from A to B, so when there’s no room, you’re not really marching, you’re just standing there. So we just followed the flow, went down some side streets, came back… it was all a bit uncoordinated.

What I really loved about it was just the atmosphere. I thought it was extremely civil, considering how many people there were. It felt like we were millions – I know we weren’t but it certainly felt that way. It was extremely joyful, extremely positive. It was full of humour, especially among the younger generation. Prior to getting there, I was hoping that this would not just be a march of Generation Xers and above. I was really hoping we would see a lot of young people, and we did – and they had just the funniest signs. So it was really just a very fun experience.

ON: Absolutely. However, thousands of sister marches took place around the world that Saturday, including here in Ottawa. Was there anything in particular that motivated you to go all the way to Washington to protest?

VL: I thought about doing the march in Ottawa, and that certainly would have been my second option. But the reason I really wanted to get there was that I felt compelled… it’s hard to give you a rational reason, I just felt compelled to go all the way to Washington. Because I think that after the election of Donald Trump, we are at a turning point in history where progressive forces need to unite and fight back. The rise of bigotry all around the world is just so overwhelming that we need to fight back with the tools we have, which are peaceful, but determined. I had a feeling that this would be a historical moment, and I really wanted to be part of it. I really wanted this to be the biggest march ever, and in order to achieve that people need to go there, you know? So I really wanted to be a part of that.

ON: Understandably so. But the manifesto of the Women’s March covered a pretty wide range of economic, social, and environmental issues – was there anyone that held particular importance or significance to you?

VL: I would say no, actually. I am a feminist, I always have been, but to me this wasn’t just about defending women’s rights. It was really about defending the rights of the vulnerable altogether. It’s visible minorities, it’s immigrants, it’s refugees, it’s the poor who will suffer from losing their health coverage… the environmental fight is also hugely important to me. It’s hard for me to pick one issue, really. It was all of it.

ON: Fair enough. Is there any one memory of your time in Washington that stands out to you in particular? VL: Yeah, actually. I really liked seeing older men in this march with signs reading “This is what a feminist looks like.” 75, 80 year old men… it really brought tears to my eyes. ON: What do you make of the gap between the massive turnout at the Women’s Marches, as well as the growing resistance to the new President’s agenda, and the low voter turnout on election day?

VL: I just think no one saw it coming. People were being complacent, and were thinking there’s no way this guy can win. It’s a failure of democracy that we’re notable to mobilize people to go vote, and there are many reasons for that, but I think in this case the issue was that no one saw it coming. If they had, you might have had the biggest turnout in history… Also, I mean, he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes, so we know he wasn’t the people’s choice. This is the result of an antiquated electoral system – the majority of the people who went out and voted did not vote for Donald Trump.

ON: Do you think the media coverage of the two candidates had much of an effect on the result, or on voters’ complacency?

VL: I don’t want to blame the media, honestly. It’s easy to do so, but we’ve seen already that there were a number of factors … hacking by the Russians, the intervention of the head of the FBI a few days before the election, putting this pseudo-scandal about emails back on the table when there was really nothing substantial. These things all had an impact, I’m sure. But at the end of the day, the thing I find the saddest of all is that the majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. That is the thing that I can still not fathom, that I can still not understand. How a woman could vote for Donald Trump… I don’t get it.

ON: In your mind, what were the march’s goals, and do you think it achieved them?

VL: I think the idea was to send a message to the new government. Sending a message directly to Donald Trump is useless; I don’t think he takes any message that isn’t the one that he wants to hear. So it’s not about the President as much as it’s about all the other Republicans. There are still some sane ones left, ones who have principles and who are good people, so it was more a message to them to say that the people do not support Trump’s politics, so please try to contain him.

ON: So where do the marches go from here? Do you think that the turnout will translate into grassroots activism and to tangible changes in the administration’s policy?

VL: It already has. But this administration has really hit the ground running; every day there’s something more obnoxious coming out, and it can be really hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. Although perhaps that’s also their strategy, because if every day there’s something to demonstrate about, that’s how you wear out the opposition. But it’s not working yet, because people are still getting mobilized. And it’s not just protests, it’s individual people calling their senators, calling their representatives. And there are other ways to resist, too. Boycotting Ivanka Trump’s brand, for example,and the NoBanNoWall campaign… there are so many ways to resist, and many of them are working. (laughs) I mean, no, actually, that’s a bit optimistic. We’re not seeing results already, I just mean the energy, the enthusiasm, the determination of the people haven’t faded yet. They’re still there.

ON: Well, that leads very nicely into my final question, which is what advice would you give to Canadians who are interested in actively resisting the new president’s agenda? What can they do?

VL: They can make sure this doesn’t happen to Canada. That is my biggest fear, that this kind of populism is going to spread. We’re seeing it already in some of the leadership campaigns, but I have great faith in Canada. As an educator, you know, I’m a little bit biased, but I do believe we have real luck in Canada to have such a solid public education system, and that is really the best barrier against populism. What I see happening in America, and I see parallels in Britain, too, as I have family there, is that when you have a society where public education is weak, when public schools are neglected and in competition with another system where all the privileged and well-off kids go, you end up with cohorts of young people who lack the critical thinking skills that are the greatest barrier to populism. They become easy prey for demagogues, and we saw that with Brexit in Britain and again in America, and they will vote for potential dictators. Because I think Trump has the stuff of a dictator, and the only thing that will hold him the back is the strength of American democratic systems. That’s the only thing that’s going to hold him back. ♦